Food halls are all the buzz these days, as developers invest big dollars in the concept and invite boutique restaurants to join their lineups. Avanti Food & Beverage is the Denver archetype, an incubator model that allows startups to sign short-term leases and test culinary ideas in a relatively low-risk environment; the Stanley Marketplace will offer another version — one featuring outposts of established eateries — when it opens in Aurora later this year. But what is a food hall if not a modernized take on the 1980s mall food court? One where small-batch artisan bread takes the place of Wetzel’s Pretzels and Orange Julius is tossed to the curb in favor of craft cocktails? Even Panda Express is nowhere to be found, its chow (mein) replaced by a $14 bowl of ramen or udon noodles topped with duck confit and a sous-vide egg.
The modern food hall fits the way many restaurant-goers eat today: gathering in groups to sample a wide range of dishes over locally made beer while adding chatter to the ambient din. The whole construct is appealing, if not a little precious; those who simply want a hot meal may be put off by the pervasive trendiness (throwaway architecture and “upcycled” or “reclaimed” design) that passes for style and substance. (Have we used up all the beetle-kill pine yet?)
But calling the food-service setup at the new Afrikmall a food court is neither an insult nor a completely adequate guide to what you’ll find there. A business and cultural center geared toward helping the economic development of the area’s African community, the Afrikmall opened at 10180 East Colfax Avenue in Aurora last July with a credit union, the African Cultural Center and plenty of square footage for special events like music and dance performances. Several retail vendors have set up shop there, and the food court is beginning to come alive.
There are now signs up at five food counters, each representing the cuisine of a different African country. When I visited last week, three were open: Flamingo Ethiopian; Akwaba Restaurant, serving the food of Ivory Coast; and Akapulco Restaurant, offering Ghanaian specialties. SeneRestaurant and Jonori will soon join the lineup, offering the tastes of Senegal and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, respectively.
Linda Essoh, a native of Ivory Coast who has lived in Denver for fifteen years, runs Akwaba, which opened in early December. She’s been in the food-service business for years and has cooked at soul-food restaurants in addition to running her own catering operation. The food of her country, located in coastal West Africa, features fish and starchy staples made with rice or cassava, she explains, so her menu offers tilapia, catfish and tuna in various platings, along with stews served with attieke or placali. Both are made from cassava; the first is finely grated so that its texture is similar to couscous, and the second is a mashed and fermented paste. For those at all familiar with West African food, Essoh’s specials board compares placali to fou fou.
The textures and flavors of Ivorian cooking are remarkably different from those of typical American cuisine. At my first bite of a slippery stew of okra, jute leaves and smoked turkey, my brain quickly rifled through my mental Rolodex in an effort to come up with familiar analogs. And then it hit me: The warming heat (from Akwaba’s flaming habanero sauce), the smoky notes from the meat and the vegetal flavor of the okra came together like gumbo, only without the French influences of flour-based roux or andouille sausage. The dish has what’s known as “draw,” but Essoh’s not shy about describing it as “slimy.” Still, on the sliminess scale, it’s pretty low — and deep, rich flavor more than makes up for the unfamiliar sensation.
The accompanying placali was the shape and color of an uncooked ball of bread dough, with a texture like extremely starchy mashed potatoes. The flavor was pleasant and mild, with a slight tanginess from the fermentation. For $10, it’s a big meal — the placali alone could easily feed two. To wash everything down, ask for a bottle of Essoh’s homemade ginger juice (a wonderful palate cleanser) or bissap, a red beverage made with hibiscus blossoms.
Next door at Akapulco (an incongruous name that conjures tropical food from another part of the globe), Mary Eshun serves up Ghanaian jollof rice, fried plantains and stews with lamb, fish, chicken, beef or egg. For first-timers, she recommends a dish called red red, which combines beans or peas (think black-eyed, not green) with rice and fried plantains. She also concocts a pepper sauce from dried fish and shrimp powder, habaneros, onions, garlic and tomatoes that makes a good topping for rice and works as the glaze on her Ghanaian hot wings.
For those who want to experience something new, Eshun recommends tuo zaafi or banku and kenke, grain-based dishes served with sauce or stew.
Unlike with the standard food-court service model, you’re not going to encounter disaffected teenagers pinned behind the counter at Afrikmall. Both women are happy to offer suggestions and talk about their cooking. After I ordered lunch at Akwaba, Essoh prepared my meal and then came back several times to make sure I was enjoying it. She seemed genuinely delighted that everything was to my liking.
In fact, during my meal, several employees and Afrikmall managers approached me to talk about the food and ask whether I’d ever been to Africa. (Yes, but I was only two; this experience made me hungry to return.) In the meantime, my lunchtime visit to Aurora was probably a little too punctual for the relaxed pace of the food court (the kitchens were just setting up for service when I arrived at 11:30 a.m.), but I didn’t have to wait long for my food. When I was nearly finished, other customers finally started arriving.
Afrikmall lacks the polish and sophistication of Avanti or the Source (with its variety of artisan food producers and restaurants), and none of the vendors serve liquor, so it’s unlikely that this city’s trendsetters (and trend followers) will be flocking here to see and be seen. But the food is definitely worth the drive along Colfax, and the parking isn’t too challenging.
When you go, plan on a later lunch or even dinner. Bring friends to sample the variety of national dishes, and be sure to ask about spice levels and ingredients. Afrikmall’s food court offers something completely new on the Denver dining scene — something that should definitely be embraced by all lovers of good food, as well as by the area’s African community.